Prison is a place where there is an absence of light. The little bit of light that exists is generated from and emanates from the people imprisoned there.
There is a strange architecture around the design of prisons, beginning with the Panopticon, the brainchild of the 18th century theoretical jurist and expounder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. The architectural design of the Panopticon consisted of a rotunda structure, constructed with glass windows, and facing the center. In this design, every prison cell was occupied by a single individual, and each cell faced the center where the guards were positioned in a tower. The thinking of the day thought this design “genius,” for a number of reasons, including the psychological pressure on people in prison not knowing when or how they were being observed. The real beauty though, was that often a light was shone towards the people in cells, practically blinding them, and they could not see the guards in the tower.
As society became just a wee bit more “humane” in how it treated people in prisons, the bright light of the Panopticon was dimmed, thus creating a place where there is an absence of light.
Donna Hylton, in her book, A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound, demonstrates how light emanates from people who have “reentered” society from prison.
When Donna was in prison, she wrote a letter that made its way to me. At that time, I was working at a nonprofit organization, coordinating what we called the Family Resource Center (FRC). The FRC worked with and for people impacted by the criminal legal system. We ran a popular support group for families with incarcerated loved ones. We also received letters from almost every prison in New York State. My staff and I prided ourselves on individual responses to letters. Often, my staff would flag a letter for me that they thought I should respond to.
In Donna’s letter to the FRC, we learned that she was putting together a “pitch” for executive clemency. I responded to the letter, giving suggestions on her pitch. One of the tragedies of long-term imprisonment, is that, perhaps because of the absence of light, people in prison have a hard time “seeing” or even imagining what the world looks like from the other side of prison walls.
When Donna was finally released, she found her way to my office in Brooklyn, asked the people she was meeting if “Eric” was around. I met Donna, and I saw her light, so it is fitting that the word “light” is in her book.
We should all want a little piece of light in our world, in our lives. Read this book and get some.